Yesterday, the New Yorker announced that its editor David Remnick would appear live in conversation with “economic nationalist,” former Breitbart CEO, and former senior Trump aide Steve Bannon at its annual festival. The next five or so hours played out according to a familiar kind of political choreography. People protested loudly on social media, including some of the New Yorker‘s own writers. Appalled festival participants past and present announced that they would have nothing to do with an event where the likes of Steve Bannon was an invited guest. Under pressure, Remnick rescinded the invitation to Bannon, but stated that he intends to conduct an extended interview with Bannon anyway, to be aired later on the New Yorker‘s podcast.
The entire thing reminded me of the fantastic 2016 crime movie Hell or High Water. One thread of the story follows two bank robbing brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, knocking over branch after branch of the same bank. The idea, as Pine explains at some point, is that when someone robs a bank, all of its employees are trained to do the same thing every time. Bank Robber A demands the drawer money from Teller B, who will not trigger the alarm until after Robber A has left, as long as Robber A doesn’t allow her to go to the vault. If you know the steps, you can dance the dance. If you know them really well, don’t get too greedy, and have a clever getaway plan, you can continue knocking over bank branches forever. There are rules of engagement, even for criminals. Of course, in the movie, someone gets greedy. You wouldn’t have a movie otherwise. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Jeff Bridges is in it. It’s really great.
Remnick too seems to have gotten a little greedy, if not for money then for its virtual equivalent: cathartic, performative indignation. He also seems to have forgotten the steps to the dance that allow you to cash in, ignored the rules. In offering a “platform” to Bannon, he must have imagined that he would bring him onstage and take him to task for his role in the mainstreaming of white nationalism as both a tool in anti-immigrant politics and as an end in itself. Remnick must have imagined that, after being subjected to an onslaught of reason and righteous indignation, the audience would explode in applause and cheers, and then, Bannon, like Tinkerbell in reverse, would shrivel up into a chunk of carbon and be swept offstage by a janitor.
But that is not how this particular dance works. Not only because Steve Bannon has no ideas worth “engaging,” not only because the force of his politics depends on an appeal not to reason but to base instinct, not only because we, as a country, have already been exposed to Steve Bannon’s ideas plenty, thanks, but also because Bannon actually doesn’t need to “win the argument” in order to win.
Simply by announcing that he had invited Bannon, Remnick set in motion a social media chain reaction that could only result in Bannon coming away the victor. Now Bannon and his defenders can point to the entire debacle as evidence that, once again, these liberal snowflakes are too afraid of having their precious feelings hurt to debate people who “disagree” with them. While doing precisely nothing, Bannon gets to claim the very ground the New Yorker sought to hold by inviting him in the first place, which is the ground of free speech, debate, and “an exchange of ideas.” (Never mind that most people are uninterested in such an exchange, which is like trading your brand new 50″ TV for a picture of a TV drawn by a Nazi). New Yorker readers and the internet at large are now mad at David Remnick, who comes off as the sort of naive free speech fetishist whose good faith provides cover for racists, bigots, and trolls to continue to dump their garbage in the public square.
And that’s the generous interpretation!
Here’s another, less generous one. Remnick must have known he would get social media blowback for the announcement. He’s not an idiot. But he figured this blowback would actually help to promote the event rather than bringing it down around his head. Such an assumption would rely on the idea that other participants in the event would choose to remain on the bill rather than dropping out in protest, that, whatever their views on Bannon, they would not choose to sacrifice their own platform. It would also entail the idea that, while the online hordes howl, “enlightened” people would pay good money to see Bannon speak. In this scenario, online outrage is just a means to an end, which is the promotion of an event that will sell tickets and earn clicks, and, when, surprise, it turns out that Remnick totally owns Bannon in front of a live audience, when Remnick lines up indignant applause line after indignant applause line, then all of the online outrage will have been nullified, and everyone will go home satisfied that reason, intelligence, and liberalism have won the day, as expected.
Frankly, this latter interpretation seems more plausible. Remnick either ignored or failed to understand that engaging in any way with the likes of Bannon only serves to amplify his message and confer legitimacy on him. But I find it difficult to believe that he doesn’t understand. What seems more likely is that he wanted to get a little bit of the action, to use social media outrage to his own ends, a skill he apparently does not possess. “Engaging” with alt-right “ideas” isn’t complicated. There’s only one rule: don’t engage. In flouting that rule, Remnick got what was coming to him. The only just deserts would be for all of the participants in the festival who said they would drop out over Bannon’s appearance to stay out even after Bannon was disinvited. It would be a nice lesson in the power of disengagement directed at someone who still hasn’t learned.